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Gini Dietrich

The Client Service Issue in a Virtual Workplace

By: Gini Dietrich | June 5, 2013 | 
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The Client Service Issue in a Virtual WorkplaceI wrote earlier this week about the PR firm of the future. Clearly, it isn’t all worked out yet, but I do think the days of people sitting in offices from 9-5 (or 8-6 or 7-7) will soon be extinct.

As I do when I’m working out a new idea, I looked at it first from the perspective of an employee and whether or not the virtual company gives us a competitive advantage. Is it an added benefit most firms can’t yet offer?

But what about as an employer? And what about the client service issue, from a professional services firm perspective?

How might our clients feel about working with people who may not be full-time and may not live in North America? How might they feel about not ever meeting the team who does the work, relying instead on their account team lead?

Non-Traditional Work Hours

Danny Brown commented on that post by saying we should take a page from start-ups and let people work when they want. Meaning, if they can get their work done in two 15-hour days and take the rest of the week off, so be it.

I joked I wished I could do that (maybe there is some truth to it), but when push comes to shove, we are a client service organization, which means we need to be “on” when our clients are.

So we have a virtual organization and, in fact have a contest that requires my team to get up and away from their desks – gasp! – during the middle of the day, but people still work normal business hours.

Heck, they may work even longer. I know Lindsay Bell starts her day around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., but she’s also the very best I’ve ever seen at shutting it down and not coming back to it until the next morning.

But she’s a full-time employee and she’s (for lack of a better term) required to work every day.

The Client Service Issue

Here’s the other thing I struggle with: If people aren’t full-time or they work two 15-hour days (or three 12-hour or whatever works), who becomes the client facing person? Because I’m here to tell you, clients don’t care if you only work three days a week. If they have a challenge or issue at midnight on Saturday night, they’re calling you.

What I’m really afraid will happen is I become the face to all clients, which isn’t scalable…and, really, isn’t where I should be spending my time if I want to grow an organization.

Of course, now that I type this (and think out loud), I realize there are different incentives and different pay structures for those who work more traditional hours than those who do not.

But we’re not a start-up that is creating products or widgets or technology or software to sell. We sell our time so I think we have to work more traditional hours…at least until our clients begin to make the shift.

As Things Evolve, Provide Flexibility

As you can see, it’s not fully baked. Things continue to evolve and none of us really have any idea where it’s going to go.

What we do know is most Millennials (and some Gen Xers and Baby Boomers) want the flexibility to work from home, go to their family’s events, use the technology they prefer, and work the hours that fit their personalities.

I know when I worked for someone, if I hadn’t had to be in the office by 8:30 a.m. and had the flexibility to work the morning hours from home and then stay later than 5:30 each day, I would have kissed my boss.

Sometimes that flexibility is more important than money or benefits or retirement funds or team parties or catered lunches.

We don’t truly know what the PR firm of the future will look like or how we’ll “fix” the client service issue if everyone wants to work less than five days a week, but we do know it’s evolving and we should be considering flexibility now.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

83 comments
dbvickery
dbvickery

My favorite part...because my company has been burned by it multiple times:

"What I’m really afraid will happen is I become the face to all clients, which isn’t scalable…and, really, isn’t where I should be spending my time if I want to grow an organization."

You also did a great job explaining that necessary Double Standard - we need to work normal business hours, so we are "there" when our clients are there...yet we have to be available practically 24x7 in case our clients have issues outside normal business hours.

Prices paid by small companies who cannot afford multiple resources.

rdopping
rdopping

To me flexibility is the key. I would take additional vacay time over money any day. Fortunately I work in an organization that recognizes peoples personal lives are as important as their work lives. It helps but like you we cannot turn it off if from one day to the next. We have to be on when our clients are on.

Its a fact of today's corporate environment and I don't want to hear any high and mighty entrepreneurs going off about how they can do whatever they want because we all have to live within the industries where we work. If you can work 2 days a week and survive then great but I don't know many that can on a regular basis.

Adam | Customer Experience
Adam | Customer Experience

So much has been said, I think I'll just add that any firm who limits hours and client connectivity (outside of expected norms) while trying to accommodate the new work will place itself at a competitive disadvantage and open itself up to poaching. If you can provide superior client service from home, or the top of Kilimanjaro, that's great. It's not the Where so much (at least for creative/comm jobs) as it is the Who, How, and When. 

brandcottage
brandcottage

I run a virtual  integrated communications firm and we've had  8 successful years doing so.  I agree we are in the client services business and clients' needs come first. My team has total flexibility but I tell them that flexibility is a two-way street. When clients need us, we are here. Period. Mobile devices help us stay in touch via email, text, Skype, whatever we have to do to respond quickly to clients' needs. I believe asking people to sit in a cubicle for 8-10 hours, commute 2+ hours per day for most of their lives is the single worst workplace idea we've ever had in America. Come on....we can balance life/work better than that. I would say most people on my team would agree.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

You should require all staff to work from a starbucks to save on WiFi.

9-5 those were the years huh? Want better? try 930am-400pm with 1 hour for lunch aka NY Stock Exchange. And they close all bank holidays. Slackers.

Know who else has banker hours? The @chobani team. They get pulled off twitter to help make my yogurt during peak demand times.

Client focus is important but those not client focused I agree with @dannybrown  but i get calls anytime 7 days.

susancellura
susancellura

One more thing...as long as you are there for the client, whether on the phone or computer (or they are one in the same these days), then you are good. A response is key, even if it is something like, "Give me ___ minutes to pull that together for you/find the answer, etc."

susancellura
susancellura

I do think you have to balance a few things until the rest of the world catches up. 

However, I find flexibility key in that sometimes my great ideas are late at night or during a conversation with friends and colleagues. Some even come from having fun with my seven-year-old! 

The school year is ending so there are a flurry of events and celebrations happening in E's first grade class. My husband is traveling and is unable to split the difference with me (he actually likes to go see her receive her awards, perform, etc.). I went to my boss and let him know that since the events happen during the middle of the school day, I would work from home so as to "do" everything. He has no problem with it, but he asked me an interesting question (he has a two-year-old and his wife stays home).

"With events happening during the school day, what do the single parents do?"

I told him outright, "Many don't attend, and that is not their first choice. Those parents that are able to attend become enthusiastic supporters of all the kids."

I am grateful that he is flexible, and am fully on the side that supports flexibility as you stated, @ginidietrich. (Don't worry, I still want to be paid.)  LOL!

But the key is this: customers must be taken care of and if that doesn't happen, they will walk. I commit to being there for them and the team, but I will eat dinner with my daughter. :)

maggielmcg
maggielmcg

I think being able to work from home--or anywhere--is a great benefit and, at least to me, mitigates the traditional hours part. You could always do something like have a choice of shifts so that times when some want to be off would be times that others would cover, and vice versa. That way not everyone is on the same schedule but client coverage is not an issue. Or job sharing, where you get the coverage, but maybe not from just one person. I'd definitely sacrifice money (and have) for more flexibility.

bradmarley
bradmarley

It's not feasible to allow employees to work two 15-hour days and then shut down. Like you said, if the client's working, we should be working.

However, I don't think it matters where we work. You mentioned before (I think it was you) that offices will soon be obsolete, and I couldn't agree more. As long as we can connect to the Internet and access VPN, and have a phone to use, we can work in Timbuktu.

The PR agency of the future will still be an agency, but it won't have a place to call home. And that's not really a bad thing.

creativeoncall
creativeoncall

Two things come to mind:
1)  There's always been a "scalability" issue when you've got your name on the door, but it's not just clients desire to "work with the name." They're looking for that level of expertise that the name represents, and frankly, you can better afford to provide top level talent on a virtual basis (on-call expertise) than if you tried to staff-up and "warehouse" other people at your level.

2)  Clients need it when they need it, so as a service firm you and your resource are always on call (hence the last part of my virtual company name).  Your non-full-time players need to be as committed to your success – and understand it as their own – as our your full-time employees.

TheSavvyCopywriter
TheSavvyCopywriter

Your last point is spot on. 

I believe that you can be 'on' for more hours of the day with the right technology without having to be planted in a desk chair for set work hours. Smartphones and tablets can do so much and many businesses do not take full advantage of their power yet. The flexibility in modern technology allows people to work wherever. This in turn can lead to people being able to work whenever too. 

For example, if you want to knock out a major project in two days by working a few long, intense days, you may be able to limit how much you work after that and just be available to clients via email or phone for the remainder of the week. You still give great customer service because you are there if a problem arises, but you do not always have to be sitting behind your desk either. 

Sounds a lot easier than it is, but the wave of the future (in my opinion anyway) is flexible working so the sooner businesses adapt, the better off they'll be down the road. I believe the next generation of the workforce doesn't see this as a benefit, but to some extent, already expects this. People work better, perform better, and are more productive when they work at a time/location where they feel their best. For some, that may be the office, for others it may be home. 

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

I have a vision of a newspaper newsroom. The reporter is out covering something - a house fire let's say - and when she's done on the scene she does not come back to the newsroom. Instead she goes to McDonald's (free wifi), bangs out a story, publishes it online, then shoots me an email asking me to edit the live story.


I don't want her in my office. I don't want my sales executive in the office. The problem is, as you note, they have to be live when their clients are live. Yes, the reporter and the sales exec have work they can do at 9 at night, but the sales exec can't sell at times she can't reach her clients.

And the reporter can't work when she wants to work - the school board isn't changing the meeting for her. I'm not changing the time I deliver thousands of newspapers for her.

Still, there is flexibility available to her. Our schools reporter has no pressing stories today. She does have a short meeting tonight to cover and asked if she could just put in 2-3 hours tonight, essentially having today off, and pile on some hours Thursday/Friday.

Why wouldn't I agree to that? There is no reason not to.

Will society go toward a work at home culture? I think we'll see more of it, but I doubt it will ever be a majority, or even a majority of the service industries. However, some flexibility doesn't hurt anyone. Why should I care if you want to take a 2-hour lunch so you can workout? That's where I think we'll see some real changes - in more flex hours.

Latest blog post: Livefyre Conversation

rosemaryoneill
rosemaryoneill

We've got a mixture of in-office and virtual, and we're bi-coastal, so it's been really important to make an extra effort to have a "watercooler" going online...we're using HipChat right now, and it's great for quick work questions as well as sports taunting. 

Regarding being "always-on," I had a heart-stabbing moment a couple of weeks ago when my daughter looked over the top of my laptop and said, "mommy, why are you always working?" (Yikes) Working on that...

KarenD.Swim
KarenD.Swim

I think you hit on the main ingredient "flexibility." Let's be honest the traditional work schedule is not the problem. The real problem (in the U.S.) is that companies have turned full time into all the time. People are never really away from their jobs, even when they have paid time off. I believe that if firms put action behind work-life balance and become more goal rather than time oriented it will not be difficult to have people who work a traditional day to take care of clients.

KristenDaukas
KristenDaukas

When the Rooster took over my home office, I moved out and then Adrienne and I joined forces and now I'm back in an office environment. It's an interesting change back and sometimes I like the office environment and other times I don't. I'm VERY easily distracted #squirrel! so I sometimes find I DO get more done when I'm working from home. However, as she and I are growing our business, it's critical that we're face to face to strategize. I think that was a really long-winded way of saying, at our offices we are client facing but considering we're a digital marketing firm, we don't HAVE to be in our office M-F.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

This is something that I've been thinking a lot about as well, especially in recent months as more and more of my client partners are no longer in the same timezone. I've always made myself available whenever possible, but set firm expectations and limitations on"business" hours -- so I'm not getting the late night phone calls on a Saturday. 

That said, I'm a writer first and foremost. I don't have to manage crisis communications on the behalf of a client. "Emergencies" don't really exist in my world of deadlines, query submissions and pitches. If I have to work long hours because a time-sensitive project demands it, so be it, but it's rare that I get urgent calls from a client on the verge of a meltdown. :)

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ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@creativeoncall To your first point, we've lost only one piece of business because the prospect didn't like we don't have office space (and it certainly wouldn't have been enough to pay what we were paying for River North office space) and we have only one client who teases me about it. He's VERY old school so he thinks I'm nuts.

Kato42
Kato42

@creativeoncall And, the idea of always being on call (which is really the way it goes in PR) raises other issues from an employee perspective. You know, that old horse called "work-life balance". 

I actually think that giving employees flexibility with scheduling their work hours helps this - a parent who knows they're able to go to their kids ballet recitals (or whatever kids do these days, mine's only 2, so we're not there yet) during the day is far more likely to feel positively about answering late night emails because they have the sense that there's give and take. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@TheSavvyCopywriter I had an interesting conversation with a client earlier this week. He was a little stressed because he knows my travel is going to pick up. I said to him, "I was traveling last week. Did you know that?" He was shocked because the level of service didn't change. Perhaps the only thing that did was I answered him from my phone more often than my laptop. So yes, it really doesn't matter where we are.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

@ClayMorgan A number of the local papers here have a definite "mobile journalism' mindset with their staff reporters. They work from cafes, coffee shops and use social media to let potential sources and community members know where they'll be. It's great for building strong ties with their readership and tapping into them as a way to suss out story ideas. 

Latest blog post: Poetry Friday: Ezra Pound

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@KarenD.Swim You're absolutely right. I'm always floored when people tell me they're going to be on vacation, but you can reach them. I believe, no matter how much you love your job, you should unplug for at least two weeks per year. Giving your brain that break - even from the things you adore to do - is essential in being able to think.

susancellura
susancellura

@ginidietrich People "gasp" when you ride your bike during lunch?! Oh, geez!! That is your time no matter where you work. 

bradmarley
bradmarley

@ginidietrich Probably not. I'd imaging they have more important things to worry about. And as long as they allow employees to work from home, there's no rush. But imagine the money they'd save by eliminating rent and not having to buy property?

TheSavvyCopywriter
TheSavvyCopywriter

@ginidietrich Technology allows us to do pretty amazing things when you think about it! The world is truly getting smaller and smaller. :)

susancellura
susancellura

Tell them you have The Daily Show on while you work! ;)

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  2. [...] Dietrich is founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, Inc. and blogs at Spin Sucks, where a version of this article originally [...]